Gorgeous eighth album from Kentucky singer songwriter strikes a contemplative, calming note
It may be over two years since the Covid-19 pandemic changed the world, but its effects still permeate, especially in art. The songs for Joan Shelley’s eighth album The Spur were written during lockdown at Shelley’s farm in Kentucky over a 12 month period where Shelley had to communicate with local songwriters on Zoom, swapping ideas and gaining feedback until the songs took shape. Then, when the album was eventually recorded, in March 2021, Shelley was seven months pregnant with her daughter.
If you thought that an album created under such extreme examples of flux would sound chaotic and restless, think again. The Spur is a typical Joan Shelley record – contemplative, calming and, at points, utterly gorgeous. There’s an impressive selection of guests involved: two legends of the alt-folk scene Bill Callahan and Meg Baird add some vocals, while English novelist Max Porter of Grief Is The Thing With Feathers fame, has a co-writing credit on the hypnotic and slightly unsettling Breath For The Boy.
This is still very much an album with Shelley’s personality stamped on it. Opener Forever Blues frames a story of self-doubt (“am I losing you?”) to some Nick Drake-style acoustics and a dreamy string section. Amberlit Morning, featuring the unmistakably lugubrious vocals of Callahan is an early highlight, a mesmerising duet between two vocals that perfectly mesh together – the pace barely picks up above a slow trot, but that hardly matters: it has the feel of watching a sunrise slowly break over early morning.
Elsewhere, When The Light Is Dying boasts a lovely arrangement which somehow manages to quietly, unobtrusively add brass and cello into its mix, and also namedrops Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker for good measure. It’s possibly the most beautiful song on the album, although it’s run close by Why Not Live Here, a lovely ode to settling down and domesticity.
Although the mood is generally downbeat, Shelley also demonstrates a pleasing knack for pretty pop-folk – Like The Thunder is a breezy country-pop standard that could easily become a fixture on the radio, while the final song Completely brings the album to a warm, comforting conclusion, another song influenced by the birth of her daughter and marriage to her guitarist Nathan Salsberg.
It’s the sort of album which flows naturally along, with not a song, or even a lyric out of place. She’s been flying under the radar pretty consistently for a decade now, but if there’s more records of the quality of The Spur, more people will inevitably fall in love with Joan Shelley’s music.